I know I said I would talk about London and Oxford eventually, but honestly speaking I don't tend to think of London as a tourist destination because so many of my friends are there that the safety net they offer cancels out that aura of mystery and adventure. Despite my constant gripes about money (my wallet was hemorrhaging) I had a lovely time seeing old(er) friends and new: Juli, Jun Yi, Su En, Kate, Ed, Jacky, Nicola, Paul...thanks guys, for showing me a great time. At Oxford of course I was very very impressed by the lovely architecture. Elian was a gracious hostess and it was lovely catching up with Namita again. Kate and I hit up a bunch of museums--some of the most notable exhibits were the Gothic Nightmares exhibit at the Tate Britain and the Americans in Paris exhibit at the National Gallery. Ed showed us the delights of beef stew chez Brown's, a delicacy we craved not just once but twice. A couple of days later I boarded a flight to Berlin. Thus began my semester abroad, a trip that I had been anticipating for the past three years of my life. I've been here now for about a month and I can say that I really really am enjoying the city. After London and even Vienna, things here seem really cheap, the transportation network is efficient and reliable, and there is always something exciting going on. The first couple of days were kind of stressful as we had to run around wrangling with German bureaucracy (doing things like opening a bank account, getting a youth ticket for the Bahns, getting a cell phone, registering oneself with the police--which I have yet to do). Our language practicum started right away as well. Having been out of school mode for the past three months, this took me quite by surprise. The course valiantly tries to get our level of German to a high enough level that we can cope with university courses in a couple of weeks. A quixotic attempt maybe, considering I sometimes struggle to get through lectures in English, but I sure as hell am learning a lot, and very quickly too.
It really makes me reconsider all the things I take for granted about languages that I know and think in. Last night I was laughed at by my eight year old host brother because I called sour cream (quark) cream (sahne). Today in class we had a discussion about the vocabulary-filtration going on from English to German. There are a remarkable amount of words in German that are lifted straight out of English, but kind of weird English at that: ein Handy is a cell phone (but "handy" is not a noun), Moonshine-Tarif is the cost of calls at night (in English you'd think it's the fine you get for making homemade vodka), it's perfectly normal to say "meine Emails checken". At the same time though, there are so many words we use in English lifted straight out from French or German because they are untranslatable: Schadenfreude, gauche, faux pas. One revelation I had the other day was when I learned the word for "stubborn": "hartnackig"--literally, hard-necked. The great thing about German is that it's a very literal, physical language. It struck me that I had no problem understanding why that was such a logical word for "stubborn"--and I realized that it is because it is the same idea in Cantonese! "Ngang geng". My professor (sigh) said it probably had to do with agricultural society and yoking techniques of stubborn oxen. Cool how some certain ideas get preserved across language borders, oder?
On the first day I said that my goal was to dream in German. It hasn't happened yet. But being forced to communicate with my host family (wonderful people--they have a gorgeous house in the southwest suburbs of Berlin and three houses down is a house designed by Mies van der Rohe) 24/7 auf deutsch has definitely helped my German a lot. I'm moving in with a German as a foreign language teacher in a couple of weeks into an apartment in Kreuzberg, a very hip and ethnic kiez (neighborhood), close to the Friday Turkish market, flea markets, cafes, bars, second hand record stores and crazy boutiques. It's also near the canal, which is meant to be very beautiful in the summer. I'm going to buy a bike because Berlin is very flat but very very big. So big in fact, that I'm sad I don't get to walk more to get to places--but seriously it's not unheard of to take the U-Bahn just two stations to get someplace. Otherwise, as we learned the hard/bitterly cold way on a certain walking city tour, it's straight up torture. "Berlin in winter" is an apt expression for something "as depressing as", but the weather has been getting warmer slowly but steadily.
Berlin is not a "beautiful" city, but it wears its scars proudly. Potsdamer Platz, the former transport and cultural hub of Weimar Berlin, was bisected by the Berlin wall and turned into an empty wasteland. Many large firms such as Sony and Daimler-Chrysler have tried to revive the place to its former glory, but to me the Sony center seems kind of cold, empty and kitschy in a millenniumish kind of way. In fifty years people are going to look at the glass and steel and grimace and say "ugh, what bad taste they had in the 2000s." I don't know what parts of Berlin I like the most. Hackescher Markt is cute, but a little too snooty and SoHo-ish for me. Friedrichshain, where I considered living for a while, is a tad too gritty. But maybe I will get used to it, this typisch Berlinisch juxtaposition of completely new buildings next to decaying Soviet Plattenbauen.
No Kit Kat Klub for me yet, but I sure have been exploring the infamous Berlin nightlife scene. My host family probably thinks I'm crazy because every Saturday morning I crawl home at 6:30am. The clubs don't get swinging until 1 in the morning, everyone dances, the music is fantastic, the spaces are huge and the drinks are relatively cheap and girls almost always get in for free. It's not like the *scene* in New York where you have to sort of know peoople to get into the hottest clubs. The average clubber here is younger, I would say. In certain areas of town, esp. the former eastern districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, the person in the store or cafe will greet you right away with the familiar "du" form instead of the formal "Sie" form of "you". It certainly is grittier and hipper than New York's East Village, and I love it. One of these weekends I am going to hit up this place described in this piece in the Times because my host sister already told me about it. Plus, I always feel extremely safe walking around Berlin, even at all hours in the evening. Certainly no one batted an eyelid when I slept past my station at 6 am last Friday and had to wait for half an hour at Wannsee for the right train to come.
Culturally, Berlin is second to none in Europe. I visited the famous Jewish Museum designed by architectural bad boy Daniel Libeskind. The exhibit is kind of schizophrenic--very comprehensive, but has overtones of being children-oriented. One part that I especially loved was the Heinrich Heine mobile: hung up above a small foam "mountain" (with copies of his poetry books stuffed around the pockets) was this mobile, with gorgeous old postcards of Lorelei images. I thought about my German lessons back at St. Paul's, when Frau Hornor would make us learn that poem by heart. Every German school child can basically recite the Lorelei and during the Third Reich it was taught that the poem was by "anonymous", in spite of the fact that it was by a renowned Jewish author. As Peter Balakian says, Holocaust is only complete when the ability to remember is wiped out. I'm now reading a book/collection of essays written by my host mother (a historian by training and a journalist/translator by trade), "Portraits of Hope: the Armenians". She says she decided to write the book while living in Cyprus, where she got to know a lot of Armenians and Greeks and Turks as well. Coming from Germany, where they apologize endlessly for the Holocaust, she wanted to make it known that the world cannot forget the first modern, systematic genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians. It's a moving book and a praiseworthy cause. I'd forgotten a lot of Balakian's "Black Dog of Fate" from when I read it in Mr. Davis' class at St. Paul's ("Literature of Witness"), I just remember it was probably the best written book on that syllabus. I was also shocked at myself that I had never ever heard of the Armenian genocide before reading his book. But as the case of Orhan Pamuk recently brought to light, that the Turkish government still officially denies of the events of 1915 should be a matter of outrage for all. It's a touchy subject here as Turkey makes its aggressive bid to join the EU.
The art scene here is of course amazing. Unfortunately I haven't been able to visit the most famous ones yet (Pergamon, Alte Nationalgalerie), but the Berlin Bienniale is here and I will definitely go to that. The überhyped Melancholie exhibit at the Neue Nationalgalerie was...scattered. I appreciated their effort to pull in all of the most famous paintings that had something or other to do with the sublime, insanity, solitary contemplation...but a whole slew of such works do not a good exhibit make.
Great news: I got an internship at the archives section of the Berlinische Galerie, a museum for German art of the early 20th century. The museum's collection reads like a list of my all time favorite artists and art movements: Brücke, Blaue Reiter, Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit...PLUS I am going to be helping out on an exhibit on the life and art of Hannah Höch which is insane because I wrote my final paper on her and her stance to visual culture for Professor Huyssen's class last semester. I am so, so so excited. More on that later. For now, it's time to sign the contract with Esther in my sweet new apartment in Kreuzberg.